Aspects of the multicultural debate

The common (some might say inevitable) response to my previous post is to suggest that I am mis-defining the term multiculturalism, and that it does in fact mean simply the idea that all cultures have complete parity. How else do we get the absurd defences of illiberal practices? Even if the the counter-intuitive work done in the name of multiculturalism is no such thing, why persist with a term that has been sullied by these actions. Far better, say the critics, to call the tolerance and change something like ‘melting pot’ instead.

But cling to ‘multiculturalism’ I do. First, because I question the extent to which the word has been discredited by its misuse. And secondly, because it just seems a better word, which better captures the ideas which I think are important. ‘Melting pot’ implies an all-consuming mass in which individual identity is lost. It has a whiff of homogeneity about it, and any new addition is barely perceptible. I want to emphasise the fact that change will occur within the majority population too. New additions are not just ‘spice’ but a whole extra ingredient…

Here are some areas of interest to me. First, the notion of group or cultural rights. Where they exist and are taken into account, I tend to the idea that they arise from a combination of individual rights, and tradition. Preserving (or at least respecting) a particular cultural practice will allow individuals to flourish. I suspect that this puts me at odds with what we could call fundamentalist multiculturalists, who hold that a culture is inherently valuable in itself.

Second, the extent to which multiculturalism is an off-shoot of western liberal thought. Is it simply a kind of legislated tolerance? Is it possible in other societies? Critics say that it is not, but I am less sure. India and the new South Africa are worthy of examination here. Clearly the impasse in Iraq, and between Israel and the Palestinians will only be solved when the various ethnic groups agree that there are things of value in different cultures they might encounter, and that these other cultures are not malign. Nation states with a single identifiable culture are not an option. But it is still an open question as to whether these solutions can succeed without an acceptance of basic liberal values. No wonder the theocracies of Iran and The Vatican feel threatened by multiculturalism – it is entirely incompatible with their claim to the absolute truth.

A third point about the multicultural debate is the extent to which it is dominated by religion, and religious obsession with sex and the sexes. Culture is of course more than that. It extends into those areas of life that are less contentious, where people might be more willing to engage in a dialogue, more willing to change. Cultural practices concerning not only food, but hospitality, leisure and ritual are all fair game for this kind of discussion. And how we evolve in these areas is as much a concern of multiculturalism, as the the ‘flash-point’ issues which periodically sweep through our periodicals like wildfire. It is perfectly possible to sit in a souq smoking a shisha pipe, without endorsing any of the pillars of Islam. Likewise, it is perfectly possible to visit the mosque in the morning and the football in the afternoon. Finsbury Park Mosque is a short walk from the Emirates Stadium at Ashburton Grove. When people talk of London and New York as the two truly multicultural ‘world cities,’ it is surely this kind of diversity that they are referring to.

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